Jan 4, 2016 | By Alec

An advanced 3D printer dispenses conductive ink to build an electronic device that can filter electromagnetic radiation. The horizontal tube uses a vacuum to remove unwanted ink.

Over the past few years, metal 3D printing has been getting a boost from one of the largest metal consuming industries in the world: national militaries. From China, to South Korea and the US, it is being recognized as an intriguing time and money saving manufacturing option. But a new innovation coming out of the lab at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, shows that 3D printing can help on more fronts than engine and airplane parts. The Massachusetts team has just successfully developed 3D printed electronic radar parts using a new conductive ink, that is much cheaper than conventional radar manufacturing options.

This new ‘functional’ ink was developed at a Raytheon-sponsored lab at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. As the institute’s co-director Christopher McCarroll, explained, this innovation has numerous military and civilian applications. While conductive inks have been developed before, it was previously always difficult to get the right electrical properties – very crucial in dealing with high-frequency radio waves – into 3D printed electronics. While it was already theorized that 3D printing electronics onto sheets of plastic would make systems both cheaper and more versatile, the existing materials just weren’t up to the challenge.

And that’s where this new ink comes in. It essentially consists of tiny metal nanoparticles suspended in a thermoplastic polymer, but unlike its predecessors it does exhibit the electrical properties that can be adjusted by applying voltage. This new ink is also 3D printable and curable at low temperatures, ensuring compatibility with plastics.

To put it to the test, the Massachusetts team have 3D printed devices that can be specifically tuned to generate or detect radio waves of specific frequencies – which is what a radar needs to do. Specifically, they have 3D printed a voltage-variable capacitor, also known as a varactor. The team believes that this is the first ever completely 3D printed varactor, an electronic component used in military radar systems, automobile collision avoidance systems and even in cell-phone towers. Also 3D printed are a phase shifter, a tool that electronically steers the beam of a phased-array radar system, and a frequency-selective surface. The latter is a filter that blocks specific frequencies of electromagnetic radiation (and selectively allows others to pass). They are regularly used to prevent radar disruption, and are employed by militaries and hospitals. An aerosol jet 3D printer, which deposits inks using streams of gas, and a specific ink 3D printer that relies on vibrations were used to manufacture these devices.

According to McCarroll, these materials and designs are still being used in experiments to optimize the results, but he is very positive. As he says to technologyreview, these materials can be used to make radar manufacturing far cheaper and easier. Their goal is to 3D print a complete functioning radar system, for which they are looking into options for incorporating high-powered computer chips into the manufacturing process, though that will still take years to complete.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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